The University and the Public Sphere

An introduction

The Academic Exchange
Vol. 13 No. 2
Spring 2011

Return to Contents

The University and the Public Sphere
What is public scholarship?

The Legacy of the Center for the Study of Public Scholarship at Emory

Further Resources

Scholar, Teacher, Public Policy Player
The balancing act of the modern legal scholar

Turning to Public Scholarship
Race and music

Teaching and Learning in the Public Realm
Lessons on effectiveness

Further Resources

Shared Knowledge
Developing a public voice through the media

Media Strategies for Faculty

"Often, when academics are not involved in [media] conversations, people rely on short-term generalizations to explain the world."

"I have my effectiveness in speaking to diverse audiences, whether it's to three hundred executives or two thousand teachers, going out and telling them something about the global economy and its implications."

Reflections on a Tragedy
The media and the public stigma around mental illness

Trusted But Not Respected
Nurses in contemporary media

Further Reading

The Public Scholars of the Future
Preparing undergraduates with skills and experiences for public service

Lives Steeped in Stories
Teaching students to become critical consumers of media

More Resources on Critical Media Literacy

"The Bible in one hand, the newspaper in the other"
Cultivating public theologians in the Youth Theological Initiative


Public scholarship flourishes at Emory. We know that public scholarship matters. It is about relevance, impact, and making connections. It is usually also about the public good.

While not overtly labeled as such, a commitment to public scholarship is etched into our university mission statement ("to create, preserve, teach, and apply knowledge in the service of humanity") and vision statement ("[our] members work collaboratively for positive transformation in the world"). Strikingly, however, there seems to be limited collective discussion at Emory about the definition of public scholarship, the various forms that public scholarship can take, and the value of public scholarship.

This issue of the Academic Exchange aims to fill that gap, or at least generate discussion in that direction. The subject of media, particularly how we communicate with media as experts, and how we can equip ourselves and our students with skills to better navigate our complex media environments, loom large in this debate and many of the essays here.

The questions abound: What is public scholarship, and what is its connection to the public sphere? How does public scholarship count--and how should it be counted--as part of the intellectual work and teaching effort of faculty? Is public scholarship an extra, optionally added on to the primary production of knowledge that we do as researchers? Or is it an intrinsic part of research--a way to apply research, disseminate results, and even create feedback loops where findings can be tested and refined? Is it--or should it be--an intrinsic part of teaching? Should it be a General Education Requirement? And where does public scholarship get listed on the CV? Are some forms of public scholarship viewed as taboo or "lesser than" in the academy? And if so, why and to what end?

The Center for the Study of Public Scholarship (1994-2009) was one of the pioneers at Emory in framing such questions and supporting public scholarship efforts. This work is currently being continued under the Center for Faculty Development and Excellence with a seminar series and a pilot Public Scholars Fellowship program (see the essays in this issue by 2010-2011 fellows Dwight Andrews and Tracy Yandle).

Many, if not most, faculty at Emory strive in some way or another to make their work relevant both in and out of the proverbial ivory tower. Many use the words "advocacy" and "applied" when framing "out of ivory tower" efforts. Others speak of "working for positive social change," "collaborating with public agencies," "informing policy," "making a difference," "connecting with the 'real world'," "outreach," and "making community connections." Some use the phrase "scholar-activist." Some explicitly use the label "public scholarship." Many do not. These phrases are also used to frame teaching goals. Others include "service learning" and "creating engaged and responsible citizens," as well as that most elemental word: "relevance." Few would argue that these things are not important, if not central, to the life and mission of the university.

Troubling binaries? Split identities?

At the same time, troubling binaries and metaphors percolate through some of these phrases. For example, when one speaks of "connecting with the 'real world'," does this mean that there is something to be taken as a "not-real" world? Does this mean there is an option? And does it imply that "the real world" is somewhere else, not within the buildings and green spaces of our campus? The phrase "Ivory Tower" continues this binary, with a protected and pristine image--even a potentially race- and class- charged image--of "the life of the mind." Analogously, Emory students talk about "the Emory Bubble," as opposed to the "outside" or "real" world. In my own research on young adults' engagements with media and politics, I found that they often speak of their university "bubble" as a place of willed disengagement, willed retreat, or willed delay. For some this is seen as practical (about prioritizing attention); for others it is very problematic.

Perhaps it is time to rethink these phrases and what lies behind them. The idea of "the university world" versus "the real world" both serves us and potentially undermines us. Such phrases reveal entrenched forms of academic culture and academic value. They also reveal the mainstream culture's views about intellectual pursuits: isolated, pointy-headed, privileged. This is, admittedly, a very anti-intellectual culture. Or at least anti- a certain kind of intellectual. While the U.S. is awash with "thought leaders," "visionaries," and pundits, few are based in universities. At least not full time. The best known are in the corporate world, in hip-hop, in journalism, in Hollywood or on TED videos.

Currently at Emory, some fields "do public scholarship" better than others. Some require it. For many, applied work is the defining core. Regardless of field, however, it is safe to say that we share common challenges of split labor, split identities, and the need to be multilingual--that is, fluent in more than one communication register and genre--as we conduct and communicate about our research.

RE-GENERATION: An experiment in scholar-activism

Last November, I struggled with this communication challenge as I undertook an experiment in scholar-activism. With the assistance of the Halle Institute, Center for Creativity & Arts, and Emory student group Generation Response, I wrote and produced a documentary theatrical work based on my University Research Committee-supported research into young adults' engagements with media and politics in the United States. The play, titled "RE-GENERATION: A Play about Political Stances, Media Insanity, and Adult Responsibilities," had three showings in the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts Theater Lab. Over the three days, 150 people attended. Each show was followed by audience discussion.

I took a lot of creative license with the work. In the early stages, I was assisted by Amreen Ukani '07C, who worked with Theater Emory during her undergraduate years here. While the original research was based on interviews and participant observation with ninety individuals, the play contains fifteen pseudonymous characters, including Shockwave, a hip-hop artist who thinks the main route to political engagement is music and not the ballot box; Crystal, who feels she needs to hide her political viewpoints because she's in the minority among her peers; Tina, who finds a million better things to do than pay attention to news and politics; Gianna, who starts out apathetic but then decides to get more informed after entering the workforce; and Jin, who works intensely on the Obama campaign.

Approximately 80 percent of the play's dialogues are verbatim material from the research. This veracity factor was powerful for audiences, but it also presented a challenge for building up characters and dramatic flow. Without my direct voice as narrator or professor, there was also the challenge of leaving people guessing how it all hung together: What is the main finding? Who is right? What do you think? How does this compare to other eras? Where are we headed? These and other questions came up repeatedly during audience discussion and on the feedback forms distributed at the end of the shows. Many still wanted to hear "the professor" from the proverbial ivory tower, while I was hoping they would talk more to each other than to me!

A theatrical work was not an anticipated outcome of the original research. I went down this path only after I realized how much might be gained from relaying and juxtaposing slices of conversation and from exposing audiences to the power of individual stories and dilemmas. I am energized by how the research results challenge existing conceptions of stereotyped apathy, as well as stereotyped activism. So I want to share that--to potentially shift conversations and bust stereotypes. I am also thinking about ways to instigate conversations that we were not having but that we need to have.

In the research, I was particularly struck by how the conversations people had with me were very different from the ones that they were having with each other. They shared uncertainties, struggles, and frustrations over our public life and our complicated media landscapes. They talked about the conflict avoidance, superficiality, and quick judgments that occur between peers when people find themselves on different sides of the political (or engagement) spectrum. My hope was, and continues to be, that this ongoing experiment in scholar-activism contributes to new insights and breakthroughs both within and across generations.

The case for critical media literacy

More broadly resonating with this effort is a concern widely shared across the faculty over how to best prepare students to be engaged and responsible citizens. We live in an unprecedented time of massive information flow, access, and connectivity. We also live in what are sometimes very subtle, toxic media environments. And we (or some of us) are now equipped with the ability to simultaneously be producers and consumers of media. Many of our students are digital natives.

Much of the conversation on media and technology across the university has been around the issues of "millennial learners," "digital scholarship," and integrating technology into teaching. These are crucial conversations. But there is also the less widely addressed issue of our relation to media: as consumers and producers of information, as members of a society, as participants in a democracy, and as citizens of the world.

How many of us have encountered among our students a lack of basic knowledge about world events? Geography? History? American civics? And this despite the fact that such information is at our fingertips at a level never before seen in history. There are many, many bright and highly engaged students at Emory who defy this trend. But I've been troubled by what seems to be a growing superficiality and diminished curiosity. Is it work overload? Media overload? Lack of time? Lack of skills? Is it to be blamed on what the recent Race to Nowhere documentary has pinpointed as our "academic achievement culture," one that drives habits of cramming and the emphasis on short-term performance, rather than instilling longer-term internal motivations and structures?

Many undergraduates seem to lack the initiative to deepen their learning about the world without the framework of a class assignment motivating them, without explicit instructions spelling out the steps, and without instructions about the specific locations where the information might be found.

There is no silver bullet solution here. But there is much to be learned from initiatives in critical media literacy. At base, critical media literacy is about the ability to "read" media. It is also about cultivating a more active and reflective approach to one's relation to media. It is about the ability to comprehend overt content, as well as the framing around content. Being able to recognize how messages and images are framed, and how cultural, economic, and political interests and values are connected to them, leads to all kinds of breakthroughs--for citizenship, for scholarship, for self, for health and well-being. It could lead to greater understanding of eating disorders, violence, racism, and the war on terror. It could lead to understanding the value of Wikipedia over the New York Times, and vice-versa.

So how can the university contribute to the development of skills for navigating and "decoding" our complex media environments? What if, for example, we had more courses (and maybe even a requirement) that help students learn how to navigate, filter, and evaluate information? Or a Center for News Literacy, like SUNY Stony Brook? Related to news literacy (or information literacy) is the age-old liberal arts goal of teaching students how to discriminate between fact and opinion. Increasingly, in our current communication environment, there is the challenge of discerning between spin vs. opinion vs. fact. The newly renamed Department of Film and Media Studies, the Journalism Program, the Program in Linguistics, the Critical Media Literacy Group's seminar series on Navigating Media Environments and Media Futures, and many other faculty who study rhetoric and the power of media, are stepping up and contributing in this regard--for example, to help students with tools for parsing public discourse, the politics of communication, and the various forms of advertising that surround us.

At its most ambitious, this approach could potentially shift our communication futures so that we are all more productive contributors to public debate and less derailed by spinmeisters, soundbites, and a polarized public sphere. I found in my own research that most young people do not know what to do with this level of heated rhetoric, except to hastily pick sides, tune out, or watch all the spin and punditry as a shooting sport, aka, entertainment. Cultivating critical media literacy might take the fun out of being a media spectator. But if indeed our lives are so thoroughly mediated and our outlets for the dissemination and production of knowledge increasingly rely on media (both new and old), it behooves us as teachers and scholars ("public" and otherwise) to meet this challenge.